Cover image for Highlights in Chemical Biology

Highlights in Chemical Biology

Chemical biology news from across RSC Publishing.

Interview: Integrative biology

26 November 2008


Mina Bissell talks to Kathleen Too about the concept and future of integrative biology    


Mina Bissell

Mina Bissell is Distinguished Scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). She is a world leader in cancer research and the recipient of numerous awards including the 2007 Pezcoller-AACR International Award in cancer research, the 2008 American Cancer Society's Medal of Honor and the Excellence in Science Award from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Dr Bissell is chair of the editorial board of the RSC's new journal Integrative Biology. 


How would you define integrative biology? 

In order to better understand biology, where more and more complexity is unravelled, we need novel, intricate technologies. Usually, these technologies are developed by people who have not studied biological problems in depth. In turn, biologists are unfamiliar with what could actually be out there to help them answer the complex and exciting questions they are trying to solve. The time has come to bring technology to the service of biology. Integrative biology is that synergy of interdisciplinary skills to work towards solving a common biological problem.

"Integrative biology is that synergy of interdisciplinary skills to work towards solving a common biological problem"

In 1982 I wrote, 'The task of solving the puzzle of how the extracellular matrix (microenvironment) regulates gene expression will consume many decades of combined efforts of biologists, chemists and perhaps even engineers and physicists, since the postulated "dynamic reciprocity" undoubtedly is physical as well as biochemical. The magnitude of the puzzle is enormous and the quest for solution will touch upon the fundamental problems in development, differentiation, cancer, aging and disease.'1 Towards this common goal, I have now developed the expertise in my own laboratory at LBNL to include physicists, bioengineers, material scientists and engineers, working side by side with 20 cell and molecular biologists and collaborating with bioinformaticists. We also interact and collaborate very closely with other bioengineers and physicists at the University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco, and other institutions. 

My hope is that there will be many integrative biology departments and institutes in the near future to encourage computational biologists, bioengineers, physicists, mathematicians, theoreticians and chemists to work together with cell-, molecular-, evolutionary- and cancer-biologists to answer emerging biological questions.

Integrative Biology is a new RSC journal to be launched in January 2009. Why is there a need for the journal?

Integrative Biology will be a good forum to emphasize the synergy between biology and technology. The journal is going to be partial to papers that address an important biological problem using novel technologies; however, we do not want to be just a technology journal or a biology journal. We want to integrate these fields within each article.

"The journal is going to be partial to papers that address an important biological problem using novel technologies"
A lot of journals write about different disciplines separately. Then there are the journals, like Nature and Science, that address all fields within their pages, but the articles themselves do not necessarily integrate these disciplines. I feel that there is now recognition that this kind of divide does not move biology forward. Biologists need to work with people from other disciplines to look at biological problems from a fresh perspective. This is why I believe that the field is ready for a journal like Integrative Biology.

How has your research led to the conclusion that technology needs to work hand in hand with biology?

Coming from a background of chemistry and bacterial genetics into research of higher organisms, I could see as early as the 1970s that to make real progress in biology, we would need to do more multidisciplinary research. We have looked into the concept of a relationship between tissue architecture and function by producing more and more high throughput work (what people refer to these days as 'systems biology') and have utilised novel technologies to answer some intriguing questions. One exciting and recent example of this kind of work from my laboratory will appear in the first issue of Integrative Biology.2 

Mark LaBarge, the first author of our paper, developed a combinatorial micropattern using special technology developed by Celeste Nelson to determine the conditions giving rise to specific daughter cells in 8000 cases at once. In the breast, there are two types of epithelial cells: luminal epithelial cells (the cells that produce milk and get cancer) and myoepithelial cells (those that control the movement of epithelial cells and surround the luminal epithelial cells). We found out the probability of cells becoming luminal or myoepithelial or remaining as precursor/stem cells. We used imaging and other technologies to determine which pathways and molecules were involved in determining whether a cell would be luminal, myoepithelial or precursor. These conclusions would not have been possible without the integration of these modern technologies and biology.

What does the future hold for integrative biology?

More departments and centres where people from different disciplines can work together will be established. Instead of having separate physiology, cell biology and molecular biology departments, for example, one would have a department of integrative biology. Granting agencies like the US National Institutes of Health are thinking of setting up interdisciplinary centres across the US to bring these fields together. The National Cancer Institute, for example, has issued a call for proposals to set up four to six interdisciplinary centres that would bring physicists, mathematicians, bioengineers and chemists together with cancer biologists to carry out cancer research. 

Universities, national laboratories and other non-profit research organisations will compete for these centres. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is constructing a building called the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center to house biologists and engineers. The University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, San Francisco have received money from the state to construct the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), built to bring bioengineers and structural biologists together.
The time is ripe. Integrative biology is here to stay.


1. M. J. Bissell, H. G. Hall and G. Parry, J. Theor. Biol., 1982, 99,  31.

2. M. A. LaBarge, C. M. Nelson, R. Villadsen, A. Fridriksdottir, J. R. Ruth, M. R. Stampfer, O. W. Petersen and M. J. Bissell, Integr. Biol., 2009, DOI: 10.1039/b816472j

Related Links

Link icon Bissell Lab
Homepage for Mina Bissell's lab

External links will open in a new browser window

Also of interest

New journal announced - Integrative Biology

January 2009 will see Integrative Biology: Quantitative biosciences from nano to macro, launched by RSC Publishing

First articles now online

Read the first Advance Articles for Integrative Biology

Human mammary progenitor cell fate decisions are products of interactions with combinatorial microenvironments
Mark A. LaBarge, Celeste M. Nelson, Rene Villadsen, Agla Fridriksdottir, Jason R. Ruth, Martha R. Stampfer, Ole W. Petersen and Mina J. Bissell, Integr. Biol., 2009, 1, 70
DOI: 10.1039/b816472j